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  • Writer's pictureLeah Jewett

Real-life sex-ed lessons from the Sex Education stars

Updated: Sep 17, 2021

Poster for Netflix show Sex Education with Gillian Anderson and Asa Butterfield up close
Lots to learn: a botanical-themed Sex Education season 3 poster (tagline: “Growth is a group project”). Image: Netflix

The ground-breaking, breathtakingly good Netflix show Sex Education is a crash course on how hard it is for parents to talk openly and honestly with their children about sex-ed topics.

Sexually active and forthright, the fierce, no-filter sex therapist Jean Milburn (played by Gillian Anderson) talks about masturbation over breakfast.

Self-conscious and uptight, her reticent 16-year-old son Otis (Asa Butterfield), like a typical teen, doesn’t want to know.

In real life Butterfield’s mother is a psychologist – “There are some similarities with Gillian’s character,” he says, “but she doesn’t pry as much.”

And although Anderson says about talking openly at home: “It's universally awkward no matter who you’re talking to, even if your mother is a sex therapist” she has learned a thing or two from the upfront character she plays.

So what does the Sex Education cast say about talking with their families about sex-ed topics? Here’s a round-up of our favourite quotes on how art mirrors their real lives at home

GILLIAN ANDERSON (unboundaried Jean Milburn)

On communicating

“Sex Education deals with very, very challenging issues that teenagers and families go through. So much of it is about communication.

My character is awkward with the way she communicates or tries to – she’s completely over the top”

On being embarrassing

“I used to think: ‘Well, I would never handle this like Jean does. I’ve got my boundaries straight, and I wouldn’t embarrass my sons.’

Cut to: me constantly saying the wrong things, asking too many questions about their girlfriend or talking about body hair or something. It’s like I literally cannot help it”

On becoming bold

“Sex Education has almost given me permission to be a bit more bold in asking embarrassing questions. I might find myself saying things that elicit a ‘Muuum!’ My 26-year-old is at the table, saying, you can’t say that!”

“I’ll find myself saying something embarrassing at the dinner table, and I don’t know if it is me or if Jean has given me the licence to say that”

“I don’t think that my kids would roll their eyes or try to run in the other direction any less than Otis does.

I think all kids, to a certain point, it’s almost like a rite of passage to be able to find your parents cringe-worthy

ASA BUTTERFIELD (reticent Otis Milburn)

On sex ed

“I wouldn’t say I’ve garnered my knowledge from a school curriculum, y’know? There were bits we were never taught about, like gay sex, female masturbation, pleasure. I didn’t even realise they were missing, not till I got older and started doing the show.

Like most people [I learned] on my own… talking with friends, and hearing whispers, words that I didn’t understand, and Googling them later.

Since doing the show, it’s definitely made me a lot more open to conversations about sex”

On his mother

“Weirdly enough my mom is a psychologist, so there were a lot of similarities [to Otis and Jean’s] relationship.

Less so the probing questions and more the openness of conversation and the willingness to talk and being able to be honest with each other, which I think is something a lot of mother and son relationships could do with more of”

In dialogue with Gillian Anderson

Gillian Anderson “I have two younger boys who haven’t got to that stage yet. When we were doing scenes, I would go: ‘Oh my God, that’s to come’”

Asa Butterfield “[The awkward parent-child dynamic] came quite naturally, I think. They are very funny, very touching, very honest conversations that a mother and son would have

Gillian Anderson “It’s about blasting through the stigma so that the conversation of sex can be had with a level of freedom and openness that it really should [these days]”

PATRICIA ALLISON (free-spirited Ola)

September 2021 Glamour magazine cover with 3 Sex Education stars
Patricia Allison (far left)

On her open-minded parents

“I never really explored my sexual identity at school.

My parents really helped me with that. They never really asked me, ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ without asking me if I had a girlfriend as well, and so in my household it was either one or the other or whatever”

ALISTAIR PETRIE (gruff Mr Groff)

On watching the show at home

“I’m really excited to sit down with my boys and my wife and watch Sex Education as a family.

I have no issue with it whatsoever – even the bits when they’ll be sitting with their head behind a cushion, I won’t be!”

Sex Education season 3 starts on 17 September 2021 on Netflix

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